By Ned Steele
Eco-entrepeneur Todd Kleperis, who battled with Sarasota County over the vegetable-growing, solar powered, water-desalinating “pod” he anchored in Siesta Key waters, is weighing his next moves after a standoff in court.
“Small-minded people have a focus on what is in their backyard and not what is better for the planet,” Kleperis fumed in the aftermath of what amounted to a judge’s split decision.
The pod was a pilot test for what Kleperis hopes to grow into a multinational aquaculture venture that cleans ocean water and is self-sustainable. But the 3-by-5-foot, ungainly-looking experimental pod attracted the ire of local residents near its location off Siesta Key Circle. They called it an eyesore, and the county issued a violation that could have netted a fine of up to $500 a day.
The court upheld the violation last month, but sided with Kleperis and his company, Tekmara, on a key point of contention. At any rate they escaped penalty because by then they had voluntarily removed the pod.
Kleperis lashed out at his opponents: “Look, Sarasota County has lots of pressing issues like the homeless population, it’s just the environment and specifically the ocean is not one of them. They would rather listen to the wealthy folks who kept calling and hammering them to stop what we were doing,” he said. “We are here to help the ocean and our planet. For those that oppose us – it’s on you. Not us.”
Sarasota County officials declined to comment on those remarks. Kleperis said he may move the scale-up of his business to the Bahamas – although he might also test the pod further in Sarasota County waters. “I’m going to continue to do what I’m doing,” he vowed. “We validated our business model. We desalinated water. We produced food.”
He is also looking at projects for robotic replanting of seagrass in the area, and for combating red tide.
But for now, the pod that sparked the skirmish is on dry land, disassembled in a warehouse in Parrish, where its parts are being used to prepare for ramped-up future production of many more pods. Tekmara is seeking $2 million in capital to fund the venture’s next round.
The court battle between the county and Kleperis gave both sides room to declare victory.
After a four-hour hearing on Aug. 25, special magistrate Bryan Kessler began composing what would become a painstakingly detailed legal analysis and eight-page decision.
The ruling would side with Tekmara’s key assertion: that the pod was, under established case law, a maritime vessel – not, as the county maintained, a structure subject to county regulations.
But, Kessler determined, Tekmara still couldn’t put it in the waters along Siesta Key Circle without a permit – which it didn’t have. The magistrate crafted an order directing Tekmara to remove the pod.
But before he signed and entered the order – on Sept. 5 – Hurricane Idalia struck.
Like countless other vessel owners, Kleperis hauled his pod out of the water to protect it from storm waters – not yet knowing how the court would rule.
After Idalia subsided, the county sent an inspector to the site who confirmed that the pod was gone. The county certified the site in compliance with the court order, and the case was closed.
But not the debate. Kleperis’ work has been watched and admired by local environmental activist Jean Cannon, who said in the wake of the court action “There needs for an ability for this type of idea to be supported, promoted and eventually used to educate and teach the next generation for our future. It would be beneficial to our community.”
At press time, Kleperis was hoping to meet with county officials to continue airing his grievances. Saying the case has cost Tekmara “tens of thousands” of dollars in legal fee, he was hoping for “an apology and a way forward on our costs.”
And so the saga continues. For now, Kleperis is hedging on his next step: “The new pods may be tested on the same spot in the future but our bet is that the Bahamas is faster to adopt new technology over Sarasota County,” he said.
Sarasota County declined to comment on how it would respond if Kleperis inserts another pod into Siesta Key waters to continue his testing.